National and International Issues

Taming the Population Monster

Pakistan is in the throes of several existential challenges. The paucity of objective reporting and the narrow scope of national discourse resulting from the media's fixation with politics and other shallow pursuits obscures the severity of these challenges. From deteriorating climate conditions to food insecurity, declining educational standards to unemployment and health crisis, most of these threats have a lot to do with overpopulation. And yet, population control does not attract much policy debate these days.
In his inaugural address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan had displayed MRI scans of two children's brains, one of a stunted child, the other of a healthy one. The difference was startling. The brain of the stunted child was significantly underdeveloped. Pakistan is estimated to have 12 million stunted children with a national rate of 40 per cent. The estimates of the total incidences of stunting, childhood wasting and underweight children reach staggering levels. The rich-poor divide, geographical variations and urban-rural disparities must have contributed to these malnutrition numbers but a rapidly expanding population is the main culprit.
In terms of climate change, Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable nation in the world. While the impact of rising global temperatures reaches every part of the world, the country’s exploding population has contributed immensely to its environmental woes. Rapidly expanding cities and housing projects are costing the country forest cover and contributing to water scarcity. Water aquifers are being contaminated and depleting swiftly. Unimaginative and unplanned constructions around drainage outlets are contributing to flooding. The country constantly sees extreme weather events very often. Where these events are not a direct result of overpopulation, they cause humungous distress in the population and results in its displacement. From floods and droughts to earthquakes, we have witnessed an incredible loss of life and property and an exodus of the affected population to the unaffected areas straining the available resources there. 
Healthcare and educational facilities are already overstretched. Perhaps the most sobering moment was encountered by the country when at the outset of the global COVID crisis, people learned from the government that to cater to the needs of approximately 210 million population only 2200 ventilators were available, out of which only a half could be spared for COVID relief. This number has improved over the past year owing to the government's efforts but it still reveals how insufficient these health facilities are for the current population. Likewise, an average class in a public school has witnessed quadrupling of the number of students attended by one teacher at a time. While the population continues to increase, the cost of upgrading and renovating these facilities also sees a steep rise. Also, with the population increase and overstretch of the law enforcement apparatus, the most vulnerable segments of society, especially women, have seen more attacks.
No country can sustain exponential population growth. While many other countries in the world have taken the population growth to a steady-state and are currently exploiting the demographic window to their advantage, Pakistan is not one of them. To paraphrase renowned scientist Carl Sagan's statement from his posthumous book Billions and Billions, the population doesn’t grow, it multiplies. Based on population estimates from a decade ago, the United Nations has already predicted that the country's population would be 292 million in 2050. However, the population jump between the last two censuses would suggest that the increase might be far more dramatic. The incumbent government's admirable initiatives to alleviate poverty and reverse the tide of climate change can only be effective if the country gets a handle on population growth. Otherwise, while these policy interventions may try to fix today's problems, the challenges will only intensify owing to further addition to the population. 
Just imagine a tomorrow where population growth keeps accelerating, putting further pressure on urban centres, which expand rapidly to devour the surrounding natural habitation. Meanwhile, the quality of governance keeps declining due to the growing demand from an unending population explosion. Simultaneously, the intensity of extreme weather incidents, desiccation and alluvial erosion undermine food yield per acre; infrastructure cannot keep up with demand and education and healthcare further diminish; and unemployment and crime are rampant. Do you think such a country can ever claim to be safe or secure? Certainly not. Any country can offer only a finite set of resources. When population growth is exponential, these resources cannot fulfil the needs of an ever-growing population. Such a sorry state can only end in tears and human suffering.
Then again, think of a tomorrow where population growth has been controlled. This does not mean that the existing numbers have decreased dramatically but that the population has reached a steady state. The challenges of poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation were immense, but the government, through its heroic efforts, managed to offer timely solutions. Meanwhile, all three tiers of the government launched an effective campaign to introduce more healthcare and educational centres. The rising educational and healthcare standards have stabilised the society and the economy is attracting more foreign investment, leading towards more jobs and wealth creation. Radicalism and crimes have declined in the country and pluralism and harmony have improved dramatically. Will you not call such a country stable and secure?
The choice between the above two scenarios seems so simple that it may present itself as a no brainer. But this simple argument is lost in the thicket of bureaucratic incoherence, ever-changing policy priorities, media's neglect and unfounded myths among the traditional classes. 
To see the failures of population planning, you only need to compare the cases of Pakistan and Bangladesh. When the two countries parted ways in 1971, the estimated population of Bangladesh was 65 million and Pakistan's at 58 million. In 2019, Bangladesh's population stood at 163 million while as per the 2017 census Pakistan's population had reached 207.7 million. Shortly after its independence, Bangladesh embarked on a rigorous plan to bring the population under control. However, in Pakistan, political instability and drastic changes in policy priorities after every five to ten years ensured that no long-term population policy could take root. Then in 2008, the parliament passed the 18th Constitutional Amendment which devolved the subject to the provinces. The provincial population welfare departments remain under-resourced and understaffed. To an estimate for every district, the total number of staff is around 100. This number is inadequate for overpopulated districts.
Another problem encountered by the country is a rapidly growing conservative brand in the society that relies on hearsay and conspiracy theories. Sadly, the country’s clergy has not been very cooperative in dispelling the notion that family planning is against the teachings of religion. To dispel this impression all you need to do is to look at the examples of other Muslim countries like Iran and Bangladesh. A concerted effort is needed to combat misinformation and disinformation in this regard. Failing this, the country will continue its steady march towards the precipice. 
The first step in the right direction is to comprehend the gravity of the situation. The country's elite will have to accept that it has a serious population problem and stop rationalising the current growth trajectory with the examples of India and China. These countries might have accomplished a lot despite their huge populations but are cognisant of how this size is a drain on their resources. And their population growth rate is still lower than Pakistan's. 
The second vital step is to elevate the debate on population growth to the national level. This, in itself, will pose a serious challenge. As the custodians of national discourse media houses will need some convincing to treat this matter seriously. But without their cooperation, and that of the clergy, this issue cannot be resolved easily.
The third step is to take stock of the bottlenecks that are keeping the country from achieving the targets. A rigorous survey of the existing resources and capacity issues at all three tiers of the government will have to be carried out. It will have to rely on verifiable data rather than extrapolations and will have to be taken to the grassroots level of each district in the country. This survey, along with the assessment of the country's constitutional, legal and policy architecture will go a long way in understanding and fixing the causes of past failures. 
The final stage, in the shape of policy intervention, will have to be focused on enhancing and mobilising these resources with a definite result in mind. This step is tricky. Many pundits believe that it is merely an issue of demand and not supply. Hence, many policy interventions have solely focused on attempts to raise awareness. Awareness alone will not solve the problem. Implementation on ground will only be possible with the help of a highly trained, well equipped and well-staffed workforce. This may need significant financial commitment, which may further impact the policymakers' enthusiasm. But controlling the population is like the proverbial stitch in time. Whatever the cost, it will be far inferior to what the country may have to pay when the population is totally out of control.

The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.
Twitter: @FarrukhKPitafi
E-mail: [email protected]

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